Last season, the University of Maine football team boasted the stingiest run defense in the nation.
The Black Bears limited opponents to 79.2 rushing yards per game, which made opponents more one-dimensional and easier to defend. UMaine won the Colonial Athletic Association championship and earned the school’s first Football Championship Subdivision national semifinal appearance.
It has been a different story so far this season.
UMaine (1-2), which returned eight of its 11 defensive starters, has given up an average of 223.3 rushing yards per game and ranks 91st among 124 FCS schools.
The Black Bears, who slipped to 12th in the STATS FCS poll and 16th in the coaches poll, are surrendering 5.5 yards per rush after holding teams to a 2.4-yard average last year.
“We’ve got to tackle better,” UMaine head coach Nick Charlton said. “Our expectations for our defense are much higher. It starts with tackling, which is what we did well last year. We were able to make plays, and we were disciplined.”
That dynamic was not consistently in evidence during Saturday night’s 45-23 loss to Towson University. The Tigers’ leading rusher was Rutgers transfer Tom Flacco, a senior quarterback who was the 2018 CAA Offensive Player of the Year and a third-team All-American.
He ran for 68 yards on seven carries and evaded a number of would-be tacklers including UMaine senior linebacker Taji Lowe, who had him lined up for a sizeable loss only to have him bounce off the hit and throw an incompletion.
“I hit him as hard as I could, but I didn’t wrap my arms around him,” Lowe said.
The rest of the Towson team gained 104 yards on 30 carries.
“Flacco is an excellent player,” Charlton said.
Charlton noted that the numbers were skewed by giving up 395 rushing yards in a 26-18 loss at Georgia Southern. The Eagles, a Football Bowl Subdivision team, run the option, a type of offense the Black Bears rarely face.
Georgia Southern racked up 32 points Saturday in a 35-32 loss to Power Five conference school Minnesota of the Big Ten.
UMaine’s defense also has not been able to force turnovers. It has generated only one, while opponents have come up with six. That includes four Chris Ferguson interceptions by Towson in the teams’ Colonial Athletic Association opener.
In 14 games last season, UMaine forced 31 turnovers and opponents had 26.
The loss of preseason All-America linebacker Deshawn Stevens with a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in the season-opening 42-14 victory over Sacred Heart has played a significant role. Stevens led the team with 120 tackles, including nine sacks, a year ago.
Junior linebacker Jaron Grayer, UMaine’s leading tackler in 2017 with 79, re-injured his shoulder on Saturday night and missed the second half. Charlton said Grayer’s availability is listed day to day.
Lowe said redshirt freshman Myles Taylor and sophomore Adrian Otero have done a solid job filling in at the linebacker spots and expects them to continue to develop.
Lowe believes UMaine’s defensive mistakes are correctable.
“It has been a lack of execution,” Lowe said. “We came into the season wanting to be the best defense in the country. We haven’t played up to that level. But we’re going to keep working, and we will get there eventually.”
On the other side of the ball, UMaine’s running game has not provided the balance Charlton seeks.
The Black Bears have rushed for 271 yards on 74 carries, an average of 90.3 ypg, which ranks tied for 93rd in the FCS. UMaine averaged 134.4 ypg on the ground a year ago, but 1,000-yard rusher Ramon Jefferson transferred.
“A lot of different things go into that,” Charlton said. “We need to do a better job getting the run game going. We’re going to look at a few things. I want to be balanced. It’s important.”
Redshirt senior Emmanuel Reed, a transfer from the University of Buffalo (FBS), is the top rusher with 141 yards on 32 carries, a respectable 4.3-yard average.
While UMaine’s running game has been inconsistent, Ferguson leads the FCS with 1,110 passing yards and the team’s 379.7 passing yards per game rank third.
UMaine travels to Colgate on Saturday for a noon nonconference game. The Raiders of the Patriot League, an FCS playoff team in 2018, are 0-3.